I have never been cursed with early-birdism. And that goes double for winter when chilly mornings make you think twice about tackling the day.
An early-bird friend of mine once arrived at a concert so far ahead of schedule that she had the unusual opportunity of sharing coffee backstage with her favorite band before they went on. The concert was infinitely more amazing now that she knew them as great people instead of just a ‘great band.’ Early birds often open themselves to interesting opportunities.
After all, getting there ahead of the rest of the crowd can make for great stories. And sometimes, going somewhere at a time that other folks consider ‘too early’ can be nothing short of life changing.
Such was the series of fortunate events that brought me to Cape Charles two weeks ago. As tourists go, I was early to say the least.
It’s January 10th. It is cold and quite windy. But as I learn on my drive across the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel that morning, the Bay doesn’t stop for winter. It’s getting on with the business of being beautiful—the entire horizon is drenched in sunshine. Seagulls ride the wind for sport and the choppy water bounces in silvery peaks. To look at the vivid blue sky from inside my car, it could be the perfect summer day.
I needed to experience Bay Creek and it just couldn’t wait till Spring. So here I am. Linda Buskey has planned a tour for me. And while she has all confidence that “a little wind” won’t get in the way of my seeing what’s so special about her beloved Eastern Shore, I wonder. I draw my coat up around me and walk into the Bay Creek Welcome Center to say hello.
Linda is not without enthusiasm. The wind whips around us as we head to Bay Creek’s Coach House Tavern on the golf course for what ends up being an amazingly fresh, locally sourced lunch. The guests and staff there know one another. And everyone knows Linda. I quickly realize that if I want to know what this Cape Charles community is all about, I’ve found the right person.
The next 24 hours will be a wonderful whirlwind of sightseeing, people-meeting, gallery-going, home-touring and soul searching. It’s winter—I am one of the few true ‘tourists’ here. And because I have arrived just a little earlier than all the others, I am about to enjoy one of those perspective-changing backstage experiences…
What’s it really like around here in winter?
We begin our tour in Bay Creek itself. This may not be how it’s usually done for folks who are thinking of moving to the area but we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. Speaking of ground, the first thing I notice is the landscape. Inside the gates, Bay Creek is blooming in defiance of winter. Hedges of yellow winter jasmine, brilliantly blonde tufts of sea oats, camellia bushes heavy with blooms and old-growth red-berried hollies surround us. It strikes me: what better time to judge a place than in its coldest (and typically brownest) season? It’s early yet. The community is truly au natural right now—without the ‘lip gloss’ and blushing blooms that spring will bring. And Bay Creek, she is a-lovely.
The community is quiet but we do meet several jolly diners in the Coach House Tavern, and a few determined walkers getting some brisk exercise along the wide, smooth streets that curve gracefully through the community. As Linda drives me around past hilly, manicured fairways and elegant entrance signs, I notice that each Bay Creek neighborhood is distinct. The homes complement each other but have their own character. That’s because, Linda explains, these neighborhoods have grown because people have chosen to settle here. They find a home site they love and built their dream home. Simple. These neighborhoods have created themselves naturally (and beautifully) by the families who chose to live here. It makes sense. I look out at the cheery, colorful homes in Bayside Village, shining in the winter sun. A neighbor drives past and, recognizing Linda’s car, calls her cell: “Linda, I thought that was you–I’m headed to the grocery store—what should I use to season cabbage soup?” Linda answers without missing a beat, “Get a bay leaf. Sauté it in olive oil and add it to the soup.” This is a regular occurrence, Linda tells me. “We all know each other. We love getting together. And we help each other out,” she says matter-of-factly.
People are friends here. And they make good soup. I’m liking this place.
Knowing what the Locals Know
After seeing elegant homes of all sorts, lush natural areas, the water and a host of wildlife, we leave Bay Creek and head over to historic Eyre Hall to explore their gardens. It’s not something you’ll see advertised. It’s one of those hidden (nationally acclaimed) treasures that you have to be tipped off to by a local. We drive up the mile-long, tree lined entrance. I’m intrigued. Ahead is a lovely historic homestead. I prepare for what’s bound to be a darn cold jaunt through a winter garden (really, what’s there to see in January?) when I’m hit head-on with an unexpected blast of warm: a springy-stepping, smiling woman in gardener’s boots is coming our way. It’s Laurie Klingel, long-time designer and manager of the gardens. She is full of energy and shares stories (and a few secrets) about this centuries-old place. The formal garden is oddly glorious in its winter cloak and there’s more to see that I could imagine–mammoth 200-year-old crape myrtles, huge camellias in full bloom, historic architecture. Laurie tells us about what’s coming in spring—daffodils in March, tulips in April, a peony row in May. But its early yet.I smile and savor the unusual beauty and solitude of the garden in winter.
Over The Hump and Under the Radar
I’m chilled but thrilled by our Eyre Hall garden discovery. The sun is about to set, even though we have a lot of ‘day left to do.’ It is winter, after all. Linda (ever the gracious host) points out interesting tidbits as we make the short drive downtown for more local flavor.
“We’re going over The Hump!” she announces as our car peaks on an unexpected hill and zips down and around quickly, roller-coaster style. “That’s what everyone here calls it, The Hump,” she smiles explaining the steep drop. I did not see that coming. But, voila! We are now in the colorful, quirky, charming Cape Charles downtown I’ve heard so much about.
Outside, it will soon be twilight and the quaint streets of Cape Charles are not populated with the ice-cream eating revelers of summer. The beach is empty save a few locals having a chat by the iconic LOVEwork sculpture on the public beach.
Linda takes me past the shops first, to the Kings Creek Marina. It feels beachy here. The marina is bright and inviting. A few cats wind around the feet of a local fisherman. The sun is setting. Just beyond the marina, I see tall, colorful coastal houses behind a white Nantucket-style gated entrance. It’s gorgeous and an interesting contrast to the more traditional homes throughout Cape Charles. We take a quick drive through the neighborhoods known as Bay Creek’s Marina Villages as the sun sinks lower on the bay. And then everything changes. In a blink, the sky has turned red and violet. It’s like neon. It’s like fire. It is unfathomably vivid. The homes on the bay reflect the color and look like they’ve been lit for a carnival. Linda had told me earlier about how beautiful the sunsets are here. But I figured it was like kids—everyone thinks theirs is special. Now I understand. I find myself speechless.
We meet a few Bay Creek friends and make our way back downtown to At Altitude Gallery on Mason Avenue. Gallery owner and aerial landscape photographer, Gordon Campbell, has prepared quite a fete: the event is ‘See What the Scientists See’ and the gallery walls are shining with his own brilliant, color-drenched photography of the Eastern Shore. This evening, he has invited researchers who study the Virginia coastline to attend and answer questions about its majesty, its fragility and how to preserve it. Beauty and brains, I think to myself… excellent! The place is buzzing with people of all ages. This is one of those ‘under the radar’ kind of events — locals-in-the-know are here enjoying great food from Amy’s Kitchen (chef Amy Brandt is an Eastern Shore treasure), and chatting about the shore, the photography and just…life.
We leave the warmth of the gallery and take a quick walk down the street to Hook-U-Up Gourmet for dinner. It’s a fairly small place with kind of a funny name. But Cape Charles is known for its quirk and charm and Linda has already proven herself as an excellent judge of venue. So, we enter. I melt into the savory smells and warm dining-room environment. The host—and chef, who we met earlier as he picked fresh herbs from the patio garden—knows Linda personally. I realize that when you live in Cape Charles, wherever you go, you’re among friends. I won’t give you a play by play of the meal. Not because I’m still a little embarrassed about how much I ate (hey, I’m on vacation!) but because words are futile to describe such a feast. And because it was $5 a-glass good wine night. You’ll have to take your own early-bird visit to Cape Charles and Hook-U-Up Gourmet to really get a feel for the place.
Galleries, great dining, people getting together…Linda tells me that Cape Charles has this kind of happening vibe all year for people who know where to find it—hip local breweries, live music, a thriving craftsman and artisan scene, and more.
I’m realizing there is no ‘off’ season in Cape Charles. And I’m loving my early-visitor status. I’m one of just a few during this time of year. People are warm and welcoming. Everyone I meet makes time to chat with me. They share stories about how they got to Cape Charles and why they never want to leave. These are the people who live here, who love it here.
Day one is done and Linda takes me back to a charming Cassatt Cottage where I settle in for the night. I hear the wind blowing in from the bay not too far from my cottage. I think about the day and find myself falling a little bit in love with this place. I’m in bed a little earlier than usual but after today, I’m realizing early can be amazing. Today, I have experienced living in this community in a way I couldn’t have at any other time of year. I have no doubt day two of my tour will be amazing—we’ll explore the Ideal Living homes, visit the Barrier Islands Center and get to know the Eastern Shore in a very special way.
It’s 10pm. It’s chilly outside. But inside, I feel toasty thinking about all the new friends I’ve met. It’s true you know, in Cape Charles, the early bird really does get the warm.
COMING SOON, Part 2 of A Winter Wander:
I visit The Barrier Islands Center and discover how the Eastern Shore went from wild and wooly, to a favorite haunt of turn-of-the-century gentility—and a U.S. President! And, I get clued in to the passionate folks who are infusing the shore with a new, exciting energy…